Vistas of volition

Monday, 29 July 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

“If there is a will, there is a way.” We have often heard the saying. There are deeper insights on human will power and its managerial applications towards decision making. Volition is the term used to identify the act of exercising the will. Today’s column will discuss the vistas of volition, with relevance to managers. Volition beyond motivation Based on a worldwide research done by late Professor Sumantra Ghoshal of London Business School and Professor Heike Bruch of University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, more light on how human willpower is utilised in decision making was shed. The findings from the study involving some large – such as ConocoPhillips and Lufthansa – and others small – such as Micro Mobility Systems – indicated the need for the managers to move beyond motivation. According the two researchers, motivation often is triggered by external stimuli or expectation of reward, but such motivation is susceptible to change. More attractive opportunities may emerge, or obstacles may appear that make the reward seem too small. Intrinsic motivation (a desire driven by an internal need) offers interest and enjoyment, but even those can change. Volition, however, implies deep personal attachment to an intention. Volitional managers have a powerful need to produce results and aren’t driven by rewards or even enjoyment. Willpower lets managers execute disciplined action even when they lack desire, expect not to enjoy the work, or feel tempted by alternative opportunities. Volition in action The researchers have cited Dan Andersson, who led Conoco’s entry into the gas-station business in a small European country. His task was to build Conoco’s retail network and a supporting organisation. The market had been deregulated, but the powerful, state-owned monopoly, with government officials’ collusion, had numerous tricks for retaining market share. “Setting up the first station was a pure fight,” Andersson recalls. “At first I was really down. I felt bad, I was angry and I was worried. But then I got going. There is this movie that I used as a picture in my mind... It has to do with busting Al Capone in Chicago in 1927 or 1929, and 1 felt we were doing exactly the same thing... We were getting those unscrupulous competitors and conniving politicians and bureaucrats who were trying to use their dirty tricks on us. Actually, 1 ended up deriving huge energy from that unfairness.” Andersson found a way to cross over to determination, and Conoco prevailed. As the research reveals, the ways that the motivation-volition distinction manifests itself vary.’’ Volitional managers don’t wait for further information or external stimuli to get started, having overcome doubts their own way. Their perception is biased; they focus attention and energy on information supporting their goals and block out contradictory information. They aren’t tempted by other opportunities or distracted by disruptions. Motivation often crumbles at negative feedback, colleagues’ resistance or lack of executive interest. Volition, however, is inspired by obstacles. Abandoning the task is not an option. Three phases of volition According to the researchers, the landscape approaching the Rubicon, the personal point of no return, differs from the landscape beyond. On the near side lies motivation, the state of wishing, choosing, considering, weighing options. There’s always a way back. On the other side, intellect and emotion merge to create commitment. Bridges are burned; action is relentless. Three phases define the process of creating and leveraging volition: intention formation, the resolution to cross over to willpower, and intention protection. Let’s discuss the details. Forming an intent Intent formation is the beginning. There is an interesting story about a man who saw an opportunity. Wim Ouboter, the founder and CEO of Switzerland’s Micro Mobility Systems, one day in 1990, wanted a sausage. The shop was too close to drive to, yet too far away to walk. He sensed an opportunity to develop a small scooter. He had always liked scooters. A favourite sister had used one routinely because of a disability, and the entire family used to join her. So there was an emotional link. Ouboter envisioned a lightweight, distinctive-looking microscooter. He built a prototype, intending to start a business. But discouraged by others’ dismissive reactions, he ended up putting the prototype in his garage and forgetting about it. Motivation had not yet become volition. The key actions in this stage can be summarised as:
  •  Identify opportunities
  • Create an emotional link
  • Visualise the intention
Once this is done, we can move to the next step. Crossing the Rubicon The idiom ‘Crossing the Rubicon’ means to pass a point of no return, and refers to Julius Caesar’s Army’s crossing of the river in 49 BC. The relevance is that once you have decided, there should be no back tracking. Hence, the need in the second phase is the crossover from giving up to get going. As Goshal and Bush tell us, during the first stage, attention is unfocused, perceptions undirected and judgments unbiased. Gradually, managers acquire the focus that precedes the leap to commitment. Often there’s a catalyst. When Wim Ouhoter saw neighbourhood children delighting in his long-abandoned scooter, his enthusiasm for a new company rekindled. His wife urged him to commit to the venture if he had faith in it, or keep quiet and face potential regrets. In fact, it is crossing the Rubicon, the point of no return. Once the decision is made, the necessary actions will be done. The research provides us more details of how managers act in this manner. Here are the key actions in this stage: • Deal with doubts and anxieties • Exercise conscious choice • Take personal responsibility It is not always easy to stay with a decision. The two researchers share their observations: Volitional managers go through inner consensus building to resolve anxiety, conflicted feelings and doubts. After an idea takes hold, the next step is recognising and confronting those reservations. Few managers confront conflicted feelings about work, a costly mistake that blocks real commitment. By facing their concerns, volitional managers avoid later hesitations. Willpower’s hallmarks are unequivocal determination and the apparently unreasonable belief in success, which help people accomplish feats that others would find impossible. Once this difficult stage is passed, we reach a safer passage. Intent protection The third and the final phase of volition is termed intention protection. There can be so many distractions that managers tend to derail. There is a literary gem from Greek mythology to highlight the case. Homer recounts Odysseus’ escape from sea nymphs whose singing made sailors leap overboard and drown. Odysseus wanted to hear the music without dying. He asked his men to bind him to the mast, forbidding them to release him before they had passed the sirens’ island. Then he ordered the men to plug their ears with wax. As the singing began, he struggled to release himself, begging to be untied. But deaf to his entreaties, his men stayed the course, saving themselves, Odysseus and the ship. Interestingly, organisations are also full of sirens. Such distractions can take attention and energy away from purposive action. Wilful managers modify their environment so as to be impervious to corporate sirens. For example, deliberately creating social pressures (public commitments, challenging deadlines or having relevant stakeholders monitor a manager’s activities) can increase the cost of abandoning the goal. What should be the way? Volitional managers also discipline their thought processes. Whenever doubts surface, they refocus. Some do so by asking themselves, “What would happen if I disengaged?” Others take time off to ponder their original purpose and reaffirm its value. Some recall the promise they made to themselves when they committed. One main way to face obstacles is to maintain positive energy. This is in addition to self-discipline. Managers need to maintain excitement about the work by deliberately defending themselves against negative emotions, converting adversities into inspiration. The key actions in this stage can be summarised as:
  •  Control the context
  • Regulate cognition
  • Manage emotions
  • Protect self-confidence
Once we go through these three stages, volition gets solidified and decisions are duly translated into actions. Relevance to us Indecisiveness can have a crippling effect in institutions. Motivated managers may get stuck without taking appropriate decisions at the appropriate time, if they do not demonstrate the required will. Why do motivated managers often fail to follow through? Because taking sustained action in the workplace requires more than motivation. It requires the deep commitment that comes from activating willpower. According to the researchers, persistent action taking relies on willpower. It needs deep personal commitment to specific initiatives and managers’ energetic efforts to achieve the desired results. Managers have to engage in a way that enables them to achieve their goals against all obstacles. The research in focus also raises a broader question. Most executives try to build people’s commitment to the overall organisation, rather than to specific projects.” But company loyalty is increasingly difficult to achieve and sustain. Besides, general commitment, even if achieved, does not necessarily lead to purposeful action on specific tasks. Way forward Sri Lankan managers can be more volitional in terms of demonstrating their focus and energy. Clarity on purpose and commitment in actions are the twin components required. Loss of productivity due to avoidable disputes and disruptive actions can be minimised with right decision making. This applies to both public and private sector alike. May the wiser counsel prevail. (Dr. Ajantha Dharmasiri works at the Postgraduate Institute of Management. He can be reached on or